[Marxism] The Palestinian body part controversy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 4 11:52:27 MDT 2009

Counterpunch Weekend Edition
September 4-6, 2009
The Missing Link in Israeli Organ Theft?
The Autopsy Surgeon Aftonbladet Forgot



The hyperventilating by Israel’s leaders [1] over a story published in a 
Swedish newspaper last month [2] suggesting that the Israeli army 
assisted in organ theft from Palestinians has distracted attention from 
the disturbing allegations made by Palestinian families that were the 
basis of the article’s central claim.

The families’ fears that relatives, killed by the Israeli army, had body 
parts removed during unauthorized autopsies performed in Israel have 
been overshadowed by accusations of a “blood libel” directed against the 
reporter, Donald Bostrom, and the Aftonbladet newspaper, as well as the 
Swedish government and people.

I have no idea whether the story is true. Like most journalists working 
in Israel and Palestine, I have heard such rumours before. Until Bostrom 
wrote his piece, no Western journalist, as far as I know, had 
investigated them. After so many years, the assumption by journalists 
was that there was little hope of finding evidence -- apart from 
literally by digging up the corpses. Doubtless, the inevitable charge of 
anti-semitism such reports attract acted as a powerful deterrent too.

What is striking about this episode is that the families making the 
claims were not given a hearing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, 
during the first intifada, when most of the reports occurred, and are 
still being denied the right to voice their concerns today.

Israel’s sensitivity to the allegation of organ theft -- or 
“harvesting”, as many observers coyly refer to the practice -- appears 
to trump the genuine concerns of the families about possible abuse of 
their loved ones.

Bostrom has been much criticized for the flimsy evidence he produced in 
support of his inflammatory story. Certainly there is much to criticize 
in his and the newspaper’s presentation of the report.

Most significantly, Bostrom and Aftonbladet exposed themselves to the 
charge of anti-semitism -- at least from Israeli officials keen to make 
mischief -- through a major error of judgment.

They muddied the waters by trying to make a tenuous connection between 
the Palestinian families’ allegations about organ theft during 
unauthorized autopsies and the entirely separate revelations this month 
that a group of US Jews had been arrested for money-laundering and 
trading in body parts. [3]

In making that connection, Bostrom and Aftonbladet suggested that the 
problem of organ theft is a current one when they have produced only 
examples of such concern from the early 1990s. They also implied, 
whether intentionally or not, that abuses allegedly committed by the 
Israeli army could somehow be extrapolated more generally to Jews.

The Swedish reporter should instead have concentrated on the valid 
question raised by the families about why the Israeli army, by its own 
admission, took away the bodies of dozens of Palestinians killed by its 
soldiers, allowed autopsies to be performed on them without the 
families’ permission and then returned the bodies for burial in 
ceremonies held under tight security.

Bostrom’s article highlighted the case of one Palestinian, 19-year-old 
Bilal Ahmed Ghanan, from the village of Imatin in the northern West 
Bank, who was killed in 1992. A shocking picture of Bilal’s stitched-up 
body accompanied the report. [4]

Bostrom has told the Israeli media that he knows of at least 20 cases of 
families claiming that the bodies of loved ones were returned with body 
parts missing, [5] although he did not say whether any of these alleged 
incidents occurred more recently.

In 1992, the year in question, Bostrom says, the Israeli army admitted 
to him that it took away for autopsy 69 of the 133 Palestinians who died 
of unnatural causes. The army has not denied this part of his report.

A justifiable question from the families relayed by Bostrom is: why did 
the army want the autopsies carried out? Unless it can be shown that the 
army intended to conduct investigations into the deaths -- and there is 
apparently no suggestion that it did -- the autopsies were unnecessary.

In fact, they were more than unnecessary. They were counterproductive if 
we assume that the army has no interest in gathering evidence that could 
be used in future war crimes prosecutions of its soldiers. Israel has a 
long track record of stymying investigations into Palestinian deaths at 
the hands of its soldiers, and carried on that ignoble tradition in the 
wake of its recent assault on Gaza.

Of even greater concern for the Palestinian families is the fact that at 
around the time the bodies of their loved ones were whisked off by the 
army for autopsy, the only institute in Israel that conducts such 
autopsies, Abu Kabir, near Tel Aviv, was almost certainly at the centre 
of a trade in organs that later became a scandal inside Israel.

Equally disturbing, the doctor behind the plunder of body parts, Prof 
Yehuda Hiss, appointed director of the Abu Kabir institute in the late 
1980s, has never been jailed despite admitting to the organ theft and he 
continues to be the state’s chief pathologist at the institute.

Hiss was in charge of the autopsies of Palestinians when Bostrom was 
listening to the families’ claims in 1992. Hiss was subsequently 
investigated twice, in 2002 and 2005, over the theft of body parts on a 
large scale.

Allegations of Hiss’ illegal trade in organs was first revealed in 2000 
by investigative reporters at the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, which 
reported that he had “price listings” for body parts and that he sold 
mainly to Israeli universities and medical schools. [6]

Apparently undeterred by these revelations, Hiss still had an array of 
body parts in his possession at Abu Kabir when the Israeli courts 
ordered a search in 2002. Israel National News reported at the time: 
“Over the past years, heads of the institute appear to have given 
thousands of organs for research without permission, while maintaining a 
‘storehouse’ of organs at Abu Kabir.” [7]

Hiss did not deny the plunder of organs, admitting that the body parts 
belonged to soldiers killed in action and had been passed to medical 
institutes and hospitals in the interests of advancing research. 
Understandably, however, the Palestinian families are unlikely to be 
satisfied with Hiss’ explanation. If the wishes of a soldier’s familiy 
were disregarded by Hiss, why not Palestinian families’ wishes too?

Hiss was allowed to continue as director of Abu Kabir until 2005 when 
allegations of a trade in organs surfaced again. On this occasion Hiss 
admitted to having removed parts from 125 bodies without authorization. 
Following a plea bargain with the state, the attorney general decided 
not to press criminal charges and Hiss was given only a reprimand. [8] 
He has continued as chief pathologist at Abu Kabir.

It should also be noted, as Bostrom points out, that in the early 1990s 
Israel was suffering from an acute shortage of organ donors to the 
extent that Ehud Olmert, health minister at the time, launched a public 
campaign to encourage Israelis to come forward.

This offers a possible explanation for Hiss’ actions. He may have acted 
to help make up the shortfall.

Given the facts that are known, there must be at least a very strong 
suspicion that Hiss removed organs without authorisation from some 
Palestinians he autopsied. Both this issue, and the army’s possible role 
in supplying him with corpses, needs investigation.

Hiss is also implicated in another long-running and unresolved scandal 
from Israel’s early years, in the 1950s, when the children of recent 
Jewish immigrants to Israel from Yemen were adopted by Ashkenazi couples 
after the Yeminite parents had been told that their child had died, [9] 
usually after admission to hospital.

After an initial cover-up, the Yeminite parents have continued pressing 
for answers from the state, and forced officials to reopen the files. 
[8] The Palestinian families deserve no less.

However, unlike the Yemenite parents, their chances of receiving any 
kind of investigation, transparent or otherwise, look all but hopeless.

When Palestinian demands for justice are not backed by investigations 
from journalists or the protests of the international community, Israel 
can safely ignore them.

It is worth remembering in this context the constant refrain from 
Israel’s peace camp that the brutal, four-decade occupation of the 
Palestinians has profoundly corrupted Israeli society.

When the army enjoys power without accountability, how do Palestinians, 
or we, know what soldiers are allowed to get away with under cover of 
occupation? What restraints are in place to prevent abuses? And who 
takes them to task if they do commit crimes?

Similarly, when Israeli politicians are able to cry “blood libel” or 
“anti-semitism” when they are criticised, damaging the reputations of 
those they accuse, what incentive do they have to initiate inquiries 
that may harm them or the institutions they oversee? What reason do they 
have to be honest when they can bludgeon a critic into silence, at no 
cost to themselves?

This is the meaning of the phrase “Power corrupts”, and Israeli 
politicians and soldiers, as well as at least one pathologist, 
demonstrably have far too much power -- most especially over 
Palestinians under occupation.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His 
latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and 
the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing 
Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His 
website is www.jkcook.net.


[1] http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1109437.html

[2] http://www.tlaxcala.es/pp.asp?reference=8390&lg=en

[3] http://www.slate.com/id/2223559/

[4] http://www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/article5652583.ab

[5] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3766093,00.html

[6] http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1173179

[7] http://www.israelfaxx.com/webarchive/2002/01/2fax0104.html

[8] http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/90518


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